diumenge, 22 de març de 2009

Eating grapes during the battle

Scene 1:
"The day before I arrived, Vollick and Khan, after months of long-range firefights across fields and vineyards, had planned an ambush of Taliban who, villagers said, sometimes gathered at a cemetery some five hundred yards from the base. The Hazaras took up a position near the cemetery, and soon two men carrying heavy blankets rounded a corner and passed a mud wall. Vollick stayed back to watch how the policemen behaved. They passed the first test by not immediately killing both men. But as soon as Khan’s men called for the Talibs to halt, they dropped the blankets and raised Kalashnikov assault rifles that were hidden underneath. The Hazaras outdrew them, and one policeman—who looked several years younger than his stated age of eighteen—emptied an entire magazine at one of the men, who fell dead with more than twenty bullets in his chest. The other man scrambled away, wounded.The Hazara men had never been this close to their enemy before, and they were eager to pursue the wounded man. But Vollick shouted at them to stay where they were, fearing that they would be led into a trap. “They were losing their minds, they were so excited,” Vollick told me later.The dead man wore an orange skullcap, a loose shalwar kameez, sandals that the Hazaras identified as Pakistani, and Chinese military webbing that held his ammunition and weapons. Vollick found a small book of names and phone numbers, as well as a rusted rifle whose stock had been shortened for easy concealment. Moments later, the group heard shots nearby. Another patrol had encountered a third insurgent, and two policemen killed him at point-blank range.Soon, insurgents began shooting wildly from a concealed position. Vollick ordered a retreat, and the group ran through the alleys toward the base. The policemen moved with their Kalashnikovs raised, and Vollick shouted at them to lower their weapons, to avoid shooting innocent farmers. The group returned with no casualties other than its composure and professionalism; the Hazaras had behaved more like a paramilitary group than like a professional police team. They hung the rusty rifle on a wall as a trophy. In the next days, every Hazara I met pointed to it with pride. That evening, they listened eagerly to the Taliban’s radio channels, which featured confused messages about someone named Bashir. Villagers later reported that the wounded man had died."

Scene 2:
Cox’s mission was to lead soldiers to the village to find out what had happened, and to see whether they could harness any anti-Taliban feeling. Some areas haven’t seen a patrol in years, so even farmers who might sympathize with the government lack any guarantee that the government will protect them if they oppose the Taliban. “How are these people supposed to know about their government and support it when there’s no police there?” Cox asked. The men on duty were not inattentive, but they seemed fundamentally unserious. They lacked initiative, and sat back and murmured to one another while the Canadians interviewed a local farmer. The Canadians barely spoke with their A.N.A. contingent at all, and the Afghan soldiers seemed to regard it as their principal duty to stand in place while the Canadians conducted their search.The team cornered a farmer, who confirmed that some villagers had persuaded the Taliban to set up their heavy machine gun in another area, in case the Canadians sent in artillery to destroy the position. The team seized on the disclosure as a sign that the villagers could rise up against the Taliban. The farmer shook his head. “No,” he said. “We can argue with you. Not with them. If we say just one thing against the insurgents, they will come and kill us.”“Have the insurgents come back to say that to you?” the Canadian asked.The farmer leaned in and looked around. “They always come here.”Soon afterward, Cox received word that some insurgents were just a few hundred yards away. An unmanned aerial vehicle had spotted men clustering south of us, across a vineyard and near a suspected weapons cache. Cox summoned an A.N.A. quick-reaction force, to support an assault against the position. Half an hour later, no one had arrived, and Cox was furious. He yelled at his counterpart in the Afghan forces, stabbing his finger at the soldier, who was suppressing a laugh: “I’m asking you if they’re ready to come here and help us fight. If you want to take this job half-assed, then fucking get out of the Army.”When the Afghan quick-response force arrived, its soldiers stood looking dazed. We started to move toward the insurgents’ position by fanning in two directions—one of the most basic tactical maneuvers an infantry unit can attempt. The Afghans now looked slightly frightened—less of the Taliban ambush than of their officer, an Afghan captain trained by Green Berets. As he issued commands through a radio, the soldiers moved down the road and into the vineyard, correctly enough but with uneasy attention to detail, like a troupe of dancers staring at their feet. When we had closed half the distance, I crouched in a furrow, amid grapevines, until a soldier ahead of me—a stubbly, spindly man with a backpack full of rocket-propelled grenade warheads—yelped “Gun!” and pointed at the ambush point. Seeing a weapon triggered the rules of engagement, and we ran toward the position. I kept my head low, looking at the ground a few steps ahead of me to avoid I.E.D.s. We leaped over an irrigation ditch, and, when I looked up to make sure I was still running in the right direction, I saw the soldier again. He had his grenade-launcher in one hand and, in the other, a colossal bunch of grapes, which he had started to eat. By the time we arrived at the place where the surveillance had spotted the insurgents, the Taliban had long since vanished back into the surrounding villages. As we stood in the empty Taliban position, I noticed that most of the Afghan soldiers carried grapes that they had picked up during the maneuver, and that they looked pleased."

Graeme Wood, Policing Afghanistan. The New Yorker.